Escape from Alcatraz

  • Directed and Co-Produced by Don Siegel
  • June 22, 1979
  • Based on the 1963 non-fiction book Escape from Alcatraz by J. Campbell Bruce

A fictionalized telling of the story of the 1962 escape from the infamous prison.

Don Siegel was the kind of director we no longer have many of. He crafted films of strong, individualistic loners with a vein of cynicism in them. The man made some great stuff such as John Wayne’s swansong (and one of his best works) The Shootist. Enter Escape from Alcatraz. It is a taut thriller based around the 1962 escape attempt by Alcatraz inmates Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris whose fate remains uncertain to this day.

Escape from Alcatraz is the highly fictionalized account of the real-life escape attempt from Alcatraz that many to this day believe was successful though no hard evidence of such has been found. It’s nice to think though because he doesn’t like an individual doing the impossible.

Clint Eastwood stars as real-life inmate Frank Morris who in this version of the story masterminded the escape. In short order Siegel establishes how intelligent and tough Morris is. While meeting with the Warden (Patrick McGoohan) he effortlessly steals a pair of nail clippers followed by beating the crap out of the biggest dude in the building named Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer) who has been making it clear he is eyeing Morris. All shown and all done by action and not excessive talking.

Actors often play the same character from film to film with tweaks here or there to fit the scenario. Eastwood is really not all that different in that respect. It works more often than not and so long as the end product is good I do not care. Eastwood’s Morris is a cynic and at times an asshole who reads the situation and bides his time before making his move.

In the story though they are criminals-and in some instances quite violent-the inmates are portrayed as the good guys with the occasional element slipped in to remind you most of the characters belong where they are but maybe not treated as harshly. The Warden is portrayed as cold or even indifferent to the prisoners in his care.

As with history, Morris’s coconspirators were brothers John (Fred Ward) and Clarence Anglin (Jack Thibeau). They left out Allen West who was unfortunately (or fortunately) left behind because everything went wrong (or right) on the night of the escape for him. They also apparently meet for the first time in Alcatraz though in reality all knew each other previously to one extent or another. In other words, take this as entertainment rather than an educational experience.

These are all strong characters stepping up to the situation. They don’t proceed with uncertainty or wrestle with doubt. They see the problem and attack it. The Warden, such as he is, sees it as almost his duty to make the lives of the prisoners difficult. He doesn’t see it as being cruel, but the environment his leadership fosters makes those under him cruel. And ultimately he has trouble believing that this individual he thought he had under control and that was beneath him bested him on some level. Maybe even successfully getting away. Siegel leaves the ultimate fate of the escapees ambiguous enough with just a hair leaning into them having survived. I like that as it doesn’t mess with history in that respect. We get no shot saying they definitely survived.

Siegel and company manage a great thriller with no dead spots that keeps you genuinely invested despite knowing how history played out. However you are kind of left trying to discern just why Frank is in jail. The Anglin brothers clearly belong but you never get that sense with Morris. There is no real indication of why with Morris.

Did they make it? The flower hints they did as it is only found on Alcatraz Island.

In real life Morris had quite the rap sheet and like here was quite intelligent. But you do not get the criminality here. Litmus (Robert Ronzio) is rather affable though why he is so hardened he needs Alcatraz is left unanswered. I know they needed characters to be sympathetic in order to justify more so their actions but the crappiness of the Warden is more than enough.

Ultimately Escape from Alcatraz is a classic bit of film from the 70s despite my questions. It’s Eastwood and Siegel at their best. Though highly fictionalized, it’s a good version of the story of the escape from the infamous prison.

Published by warrenwatchedamovie

Just a movie lover trying spread the love.

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